EL DORADO HILLS, Calif. — At the front of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church sat a casket draped in a white cloth, bathing in the sunlight that poured through the church’s large windows. It contained the body of Annie Le GRD ’13, the 24-year-old doctoral student whose remains were found 15 days ago in the Yale research lab where she worked.
About 600 family members and friends gathered here on Saturday afternoon for Le’s funeral mass, where the Yale graduate student was honored in Catholic prayer and remembered by her family for her outgoing personality in addition to her intelligence.
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“It was through these little things that she did — her silliness and friendliness and not her academic achievement — that she made the most impression on us,” said Dan Nguyen, whom Le considered her brother, in his eulogy.
Nguyen spoke about the “silly girl” that Le was, describing her playing with stuffed animals even when she was older, watching cartoons with his younger brother and “talking to [Dan] as if [he] was still a 5-year-old.”
Le’s uncovered casket was brought in by her brothers and cousins, Nguyen among them, who dressed in black suits with white scarves and gloves.
Members of Le’s family — including her mother, siblings and maternal great-uncle — gave eulogies in Le’s memory. Her fiancé, Jonathan Widawsky, whom Le was supposed to marry on the day her body was found, looked on stoically.
Le’s mother, Vivian Van Le, addressed him directly, saying, “Jon, even now Annie is gone, but I still have you. I love you very much.” She then read a poem in Vietnamese, which Le’s brother Christopher translated: “Farewell, my child,” it began. “You are here lying in the cold coffin.”
Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, who attended the funeral, said he was touched by Le’s family’s tributes to her life.
“They just demonstrated what a remarkable role she played in the family and they were all just enormously proud of her as a person,” he said. “They loved her in a very special way that came out in the eulogies.”
Before the service started, Monsignor James Kidder, the church’s pastor, described meeting Le for the first time as a child and recalled her big smile, which stood out in a crowd of children.
“The family is hoping this day and this ceremony will be a real moment, not just in the sense of putting Annie away, but in the sense of reconciling,” he said.
During the service, Kidder spoke about Le’s connection to Jesus in her life and death and her emotional dedication to her chosen field of medicine. He cited her care of the sick and her volunteer work at Marshall Hospital in El Dorado County.
“[She had] a heart that led her to say she wanted to do the best and be the best, to keep people from having their lives cut short,” Kidder said. “Ironic, isn’t it, that her life was cut short?”
After three Biblical passages chosen by Le’s family — from Job, Paul to the Corinthians and Matthew — were read in both Vietnamese and English, Kidder and the other religious leaders present led the guests in a traditional Catholic Eucharist.
The bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento, Jaime Soto, referenced the violent nature of Le’s death. An autopsy report concluded that Le had been strangled.
“We do not let cruelty or violence own the sorrow,” Soto said. “We let love own the sorrow. It was Annie’s love for her family and friends, for her fiancé, that give us such sorrow, as well as our love for her.”
As the service concluded with the hymn “Be Not Afraid,” the guests filed out of the white-walled church. Outside, Le’s mother wept.
There was a private graveside service following the mass. Yale will hold a memorial service for Le on Oct. 12 at Battell Chapel.
Brittany Bottini reported from El Dorado Hills, Calif., and Esther Zuckerman from New Haven.